My role as an Agile Coach is very people focused and effective communication at all levels is at the core of what I do. Since the start of the pandemic and working from home, and those Zoom calls, I have taken to putting post-it notes on the bottom of my monitor. Little ‘self-coaching’ messages to myself to help me when I feel frustrated as a result of the isolated environment I must work in. As the pandemic has progressed and my understanding of self and others has grown (enabled by learning from my coaching course), the post-it note messages are changing over time.
One of the very first post-its I pinned to my monitor was ‘don’t react’. I had a coaching call with quite a challenging client. Very aggravated by the prospect of change in the workplace and quite confrontational with me. In my role as coach for organisational change, I often represent the ‘tip of the spear’ of change for many when it comes to coaching individuals through significant organisational change. This change often has the potential to be quite impactful on a client’s working life. It is also often change that they did not ask for, and may fear. Even though I understand that this ‘attack’ is probably not personal to me and likely stems from fear and worry about what the change will bring, I still have quite an adverse physical and emotional reaction to it. My heart pounds, my voice shakes and I am desperately trying to look calm and unaffected, while inside I’m battling to keep my emotions in check. I was quite affected by the call for the rest of the evening and the next day. But I eventually managed to settle and that’s when I added the post-it ‘don’t react’.
As my knowledge and understanding of coaching has grown with the coaching course, my understanding of how my mind works and that of my clients has deepened in so many ways. In the beginning I think that post-it ‘don’t react’ to me simply meant ‘stay in control’, ‘don’t lose control’, ‘stay calm’. It was a direction to myself and if I follow that direction, I will avoid that suffering in future similar situations. And I feel good when I add those notes. Initially it feels a little like a eureka moment. Finally I understand what causes me pain is reacting negatively in a confrontational situation. If I follow this direction, my suffering will end, I will be a happier person and a better and more in control coach! However, the power of those words, the insight, fades after a while. I stop noticing the post-it and stop following the direction.
The post-it ‘don’t react’ lost its power and resonance for me quite quickly, because that unwanted physical and emotional reaction to confrontation is not the problem. The problem is my perception of the events that led to the reaction. In her book Mindful Coaching, Liz Hall states “Mindfulness incorporates the ability to recognise that we are not our thoughts and we can choose how we respond.” (Hall, 2013, p.14). My negative response is likely caused by my perception that I am to blame, I am not doing my job properly, I’m an imposter. In that moment, I could choose to think differently. The client is not angry with me, they are angry with change and potentially loss of control. I could choose to think compassionately not just towards the client but also myself. That compassion for self and the client might likely illicit a more positive response that better serves the client and myself.
The trick here is having that insight while in the very moment of perceived conflict. How do I elicit feelings of compassion in that moment, that influences how I respond? How might I help my client to also recognise their thoughts and react in that moment with compassion for themselves instead of fear and anger? This I believe is where awareness comes in. Awareness of ourselves and what and how we experience life, is a vital element of coaching, both for the coach and the client. Whitmore in his book Coaching for Performance states that “Building awareness and responsibility is the essence of good coaching and enables the activation of natural learning.” (Whitmore, 2017, p.67).
In the context of mindfulness, awareness is an outcome of being mindful and that mindfulness serves coaching well. It is that concept I wish to explore and build upon in this assignment. I hope to further elaborate on this mindfulness concept and my personal experience of it and how it relates to myself and my coaching practice.
In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “examining who we are, with questioning our view of the world and our place in it, and with cultivating some appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive. Most of all, it has to do with being in touch.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, p.3). He goes on to state that “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of present moment reality.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, p.4). I think this quote is full of concepts around being fully aware (and without judgement) in the present moment, to what is actually happening and questioning ourselves to ensure that how we experience the moment matches reality.
In a coaching context we achieve awareness through presence. Elaine Cox in her book Coaching Understood quotes Patterson by describing presence as “sitting at the very head of our ability as coach supervisors to work with what is in new, fresh and exciting ways. She goes on to describe presence as a broader concept of which awareness is a component “Patterson illustrates the complexity of presence by introducing a long list of components, which include: awareness; curiosity; generosity; compassion; abundance; courage; respect; tolerance; permission; authenticity; honesty and openness.” (Cox, et al, 2013, p.121 & p.122).
In her book Mindful Coaching, Liz Hall expands on the role of mindfulness in coaching by stating “One of the things coaching sets out to do is help people change how they think and feel about experiences, thus giving them more choice about how they respond, and this is what mindfulness does too” (Hall, 2013, p.14). She goes on to state that “mindfulness helps us become friends with our minds, so we become more aware of our triggers, our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations, putting us in a better position to choose how we respond – rather than react – to the world around us.” (Hall, 2013, p.14). That statement is so apt to my own self-coaching post-it of “don’t react” which I refer to in the introduction. By writing that post-it, I was telling myself I know how I am reacting is not appropriate to the experience, however I lack the insight and understanding of mindfulness in a personal and coaching context in order to, in that moment “change how I think and feel about the experience”. A more appropriate post-it might have been ‘consider the experience’ or ‘choose a more appropriate reaction’?
If I were to use a mindfulness approach to coaching, particularly in the context of my own physical and emotional reaction to conflict in the workplace, how would I approach that situation? First and foremost, I would start with awareness. Am I aware of what is happening. Am I taking on the role of ‘Witness’ with an ‘Observer Mind’ of the experience and my own reaction? I believe I am. In the moment it was happening or escalating, I became aware of my physical reaction – heart pounding, my deep breathing. I was aware that I was reacting because emotionally I felt I was being blamed, but at the same time I instinctively knew the client was annoyed about the change they were being asked to enter into by their organisation, rather than me as a professional. But I still reacted to the feeling of being blamed and not with compassion for my client and their situation. So awareness alone in the context of mindfulness will not give me the skills I need to change how I think and feel about my experiences.
Liz Hall in her book Mindful Coaching states that ‘mindfulness helps us be more compassionate to ourselves and others, it helps us make better decisions, and it helps us look after ourselves. It helps us behave more ethically and think more systemically” (Hall, 2013, p.19). Hall continues this theme by stating that mindfulness from a neuroscientific perspective has been proven that it helps people change by re-wiring previously perceived hard-wired thought processes in adults. “As evidence appears to be piling up to suggest that mindfulness is the perfect companion (to coaching) as a highly effective method of doing this re-wiring” (Hall, 2013, p.26). Exciting stuff, but how does it work?
Thinking back to the situation, the word ‘judgement’ comes to mind. Was I reacting negatively because I felt judged? Was I judging my client by assuming they were blaming me. Indeed was my client judging me as the instigator and chief of their pain? Kabat-Zinn states “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, p.4). Chaskalson in his book The Mindful Workplace, refers to Kabat-Zinn also and specifically calls out ‘non-judgement’ as a quality of mindful awareness. He states that it involves “dropping a certain kind of judgementalism, especially the tendency constantly to judge ourselves in a critical light. Many of us have a habit of judging ourselves that disguises itself as an attempt to help us lead better lives and be better people. But actually it’s a kind of irrational tyranny that can never be satisfied” (Chaskalson, 2011, p.19). If I had not rushed to judge my client. If instead I approached it as Chaskalson states you can with mindfulness and “just let yourself experience what you were experiencing without censoring it, or wishing they were other than they are.” (Chaskalson, 2011, p.19). Then maybe my response to that experience would have been to feel compassion for my client’s pain? “Mindfulness training encourages us to bring an attitude of warm, kindly curiosity to whatever we experience – in thoughts, feelings and body-sensations – from moment to moment. It enables us to let what is the case be the case.” (Chaskalson, 2011, p.19).
So ‘Non-judging’ is the key? If I had practiced non-judging in that experience, compassion would have followed? It likely would have, but knowing I should be non-judging and actually practicing it are very different things for me. There is a chapter in Kabit-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are, which explores the concept of ‘Letting Go’. This concept resonates with me probably because I experience that concept in general life when people say ‘just let it go, it’s not worth it’. I recognise it from CBT particularly the book Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, where Neenan refers to how one might deal with unwanted thoughts “observe them without engaging with them. This non-engagement with thoughts is called mindfulness.” (Neenan, 2018, p.91). Kabit-Zinn describes letting go as “an invitation to cease clinging to anything – whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding.” (Kabit-Zinn, 2004, p.53). It is not only necessary for me to be non-judging, I must also learn to let go and “release with full acceptance” my client’s anger and pain “into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding”. I can no longer judge, because there is nothing left to judge. There is only the experience remaining, and with that, the space for me to respond with compassion.
So how do I become more mindful? Hall in her book Mindful Coaching believes it is possible to practice mindfulness without the practice of meditation. “It is still possible to reap the benefit (of mindfulness) without meditating but meditation can have a profound impact.” (Hall, 2013, p.15). As part of this course I have practiced meditation in an effort to improve mindfulness. I have practiced Body Scan, Awareness of Breath and even Mindful Walking. In those fleeting moments when I think I am experiencing mindfulness, I feel I am right here, in the moment, in reality, physically present in a physical location. I am touching the ground with my feet and I feel the texture of the surface of the ground on my feet. I hear myself breathing and I feel my stomach moving as I inhale and exhale. I see the window and the dirt specks on the window. I hear the traffic passing by, first loudly as it approaches me and then fading into the distance, until another passes. I’m trying to keep all these experiences in my sphere of conscious awareness simultaneously. I am aware that I am in and out of conscious awareness. I am aware of my annoyance with myself when I drift away and must bring myself back. I try to not judge myself for drifting away and show myself compassion, but those activities in themselves are making me drift away into my unconscious, and then I start again.
Experiencing mindfulness is not easy. However I am encouraged by the words of Kabit-Zinn again in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, when he says “A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step. When we commit to taking that step – in this case, to taking our seat for even the briefest of times – we can touch the timeless in any moment. From all that benefit flows, and from that alone.” (Kabit-Zinn, 2004, p.125). I take my seat (metaphorically). I am comfortable but not slouching. There is definitely an awareness of dignity, if only through the knowledge that what I am practicing has be practiced for hundreds of years prior to my existence and will continue for many more after I am gone. I do feel that even those fleeting moments of what I believe to be mindfulness or the present moment without judgement, all add up. I cannot teach mindfulness to my clients, but at least if I myself can practice mindfulness, I can be a better coach to my clients. I’m with Liz Hall when she states that “Mindfulness helps us coaches to be comfortable with listening, to be properly curious and non-judgemental and to stay with silence when it is truly golden.” (Hall, 2013, p.56).
Only recently and nothing to do with this assignment, I took down the ‘don’t react’ post-it and replaced it with ‘Care for yourself’. I’m pretty sure I would not have written that message to myself 6 months ago, simply because I had little understanding of the ‘why’ of my unwanted reactions. I just understood it happens and I need to stop it happening. Through greater awareness of my experiences and the practice of non-judgement, I recognised that compassion for oneself or ‘Care for yourself’ is a vital element in my wellness and the wellness of others in my life and my practice. In her book Mindful Coaching, Liz Hall, el al states “As Professor Paul Gilbert, an expert on compassion, points out, we’re a species that evolved to thrive on kindness and compassion. ‘Our brains have evolved to be caring and to need caring… This caring has been such a successful strategy that it has flourished into complex potentials within the human brain, including building the competencies that gave rise to our abilities for compassion’ (Gilbert, 2009, The Compassionate Mind). (Hall, 2013, p.67).
Hall, L. (2013). Mindful Coaching.
- Whitmore, J. (2017). Coaching for Performance.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). Wherever You Go, There You Are.
- Cox, E. (2013). Coaching Understood.
- Chaskalson, M. (2011). The Mindful Workplace.
- Neenan, M. (2018). Cognitive Behavioural Coaching.